Being a female entrepreneur has its challenges.
Women own 40 percent of all businesses; their businesses invest more in their communities and the environment, and generally have a higher percentage of liquid assets, but they only bring in four percent of annual revenues and grow more slowly. And for many women in business, a lack of social capital limits access to financial capital, mentors, and support.
While none of this is particularly new information, when we speak to Hudson Valley female entrepreneurs in two of the 10 most COVID-affected industries, we can get a better understanding of how our community can better support ourselves, these organizations, and our community at large during this time.
When Sandy Sooknanan left her career as a nutritionist to open her yoga studio 13 years ago, she knew all too well how it felt to walk into a yoga class and be the only brown face in the room. She wanted a space where people of all backgrounds can also walk in and feel at home.
And she’s done that—nearly. Today her studio, Dutchess Yoga in Wappingers Falls, includes students of a variety of colors, shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and abilities. Yet, Sooknanan can recount several instances of white people who, visiting for the first time, have been welcomed into her studio, excused themselves before class started and never returned. But that doesn’t deter her.
As she tells her students, “What serves us will stay; what doesn’t will leave.”
Sooknanan knows that her studio has survived specifically because of its diversity. To her knowledge, it is the only studio in Dutchess County owned by a woman of color. And because Sooknanan has dedicated herself and her studio to be a resource, not simply a business, she has helped people affected by addiction, suicide, and a variety of other challenges—regardless of color—form meaningful relationships and transform their lives. Many have even become yoga teachers themselves.
Sooknanan has made a point to keep herself strong by “preparing every day.” She uses gratitude, breathing exercises, and yoga to stay strong and move forward. It’s from this place that she’s able to continue supporting her teachers, students, and studio. And she hopes that during this time each person can learn to take proper care of oneself, which benefits us all.
While she awaits a response to her Small Business Administration funding application, Sooknanan has had to scale back to teaching four to five classes a week on Zoom. And, although she is concerned about the bills piling up, how much she can work with her landlord on rents, and the future of the studio, she has been so touched by the outpouring of support from her studio community. Students are donating to classes even when they cannot attend and studio members have chosen not to withdraw their monthly dues.
Laleh Khorramian, a Greene County visual artist and clothing designer, was in the UK visiting the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in preparation for her 2021 exhibition when COVID-19 started its uptick there. She had to hurry home before flights to the US shut down.
When she got home she immediately started making the masks her friend Kristen Dodge, owner of Hudson’s September Gallery, had requested. Dodge’s mother has Parkinson’s and a team of professional caregivers who all needed protective gear.
Khorramian realized the need was much bigger at Walmart the next day when she saw all the workers without personal protective equipment (PPE). She immediately called Dodge and said, “I just want to make free masks for everyone.”
Their decades in the art world and in the Hudson Valley proved critical. By March 20, the two had collected $5,000 in private donations to cover the production, distribution, and materials for 1,000 masks and launched Facebook and Instagram pages to spread the word. Masks 4 People was born. By April 20, they had an additional $10,000 to cover 1,500 masks and are now preparing for a third round of fundraising, which will be more public.
It’s clear that working together was a key to this project. For Dodge, before this pandemic, the hardest part of running the gallery has been one of support. With only one part-time position, she sometimes has to hire every six months, which means that she tends to do it all herself. And so being able to collaborate on producing these free masks has been a relief.
Khorramian agrees, saying, “With clothing, I was doing everything on my own. Being able to manage different aspects of the business when you’re a creative person is tough. I learn a lot from Kristen. I would not have gotten as far as it did if [this] wasn’t a collaboration.”
Dodge’s greatest concern about the gallery in post-quarantine life centers around how public spaces are going to function. Just as Sooknanan wonders how safe people will feel coming back to her physical studio once they are allowed to open.
For all three women, pouring their time into collaboration, community, and connecting with themselves and others has been helping them through this time. The diversity and community aspects that Sooknanan built in her business mirror some of the treasured aspects of Dodge and Khorramian’s collaboration that keep them going—“working with people from all over” and “giving back.”
“But, it’s strange to wrap your head around,” Dodge said. “[Masks 4 People] looks and acts like a business, but no money is being made. It takes the same time and commitment that a business requires, but we know and hope there’s going to be an end to it.”
During this pandemic, many people are having to do some things they’ve never done before. Hopefully, we can hold on to those things that keep us healthy, in community and safe—that serve us—and let those that don’t fall away.
If you are struggling through this time of quarantine, I hope their example inspires you. If you’re looking for ways to invest in the Hudson Valley economy, here are some female entrepreneurs, who even in this time of crisis, are still finding ways to give back.
Dutchess Yoga Studio: dutchessyoga.com
MASKS 4 PEOPLE: facebook.com/masks4people